South Africa’s president delivered a rare shot of good news to people in the continent’s coronavirus hotspot: the nation’s second wave appears to be abating, and the government will soon launch a vaccination campaign for health workers.
The Monday address, delivered live on national television, was a departure from President Cyril Ramaphosa’s usual tone. For nearly a year, Ramaphosa has the been the bearer of grim news, talking of deaths, rising caseloads and burdened hospitals, of lockdowns and restrictions and of endless reminders, like a chiding father, reminding people to wear your mask, wash your hands.
South Africa is the continent’s viral hotspot, with 1.4 million confirmed cases and more than 44,000 COVID-19 deaths since the virus arrived in March. The nation experienced the start of a second wave of the virus, featuring a new variant that is significantly more contagious, in late December.
But this week, a ray of hope: earlier Monday, the president and top ministers stood on the sodden airport tarmac in Johannesburg to greet the arrival of 1 million vaccine doses. Ramaphosa said they will , in the next two weeks, make their way into the arms of frontline healthcare workers. After that, Ramaphosa said, the country will vaccinate 40 million people — about 67 percent of the population — by year’s end. He emphasized that no one will be required to take the vaccine.
He spoke live on national TV late Monday.
“Fellow South Africans, the first set of good news is the arrival of the vaccine today,” he said. “The second is that we have recorded our lowest daily increase in infections. Since the beginning of December of last year, in fact, the average rate of new infections has been steadily coming down over the last three weeks, indicating that we have now passed the peak of the second wave.”
South Africa will become the fifth African nation to roll out mass vaccinations, after Morocco, Egypt, the Seychelles and Guinea. Ramaphosa also said that, in his role as chairman of the African Union, he is working to secure the delivery of one billion vaccines for the African continent.
“Seven hundred million of these will come through the global COVAX facility and 300 million have been facilitated by the African vaccine acquisition task team. We will be getting other vaccines that will be donated by various private sector companies to add to the vaccines that our continent needs,” the president said.”
Ramaphosa, as the only African leader in the G-20, has publicly exhorted wealthy nations to share the vaccines equitably.
Ramaphosa also announced that his government would ease current COVID-19 restrictions, including loosening the overnight curfew and allowing the resumption of alcohol sales. But, he warned, that doesn’t mean South Africa should breathe a sigh of relief — yet.
“Let us remember that despite the clear progress we have made, the number of new cases is still high and there is an ever present danger of a resurgence,” he said. “It is therefore necessary to maintain the country on coronavirus alert level three, indicating the continued high risk of transmission.”